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Wyvolyn Gager - A life spent in news

Published:Tuesday | August 26, 2014 | 8:00 AM

By Robert Lalah

Wyvolyn Gager could have done well as headmistress of a boarding school. She has the physical stature and personality traits that would make her a fine disciplinarian. But, while she taught at an all-age school for a short while in the 1970s, it's her long and distinguished career in journalism that she's best known for today.

Gager is former editor-in-chief of The Gleaner. She's the only woman to ever hold that post and one of a relatively small group of memorable characters whose stint in that job are the subject of fond and often polarising newsroom conversations today.

Gager and I met for lunch in St Andrew last week. She's a striking figure. She walks with her head held high and commands attention at first glance. She arrived, wearing dark sunglasses, at the strike of 1 p.m., our agreed meeting time. She glanced at her watch and said quietly, "Yes, one o'clock. We're on time."

FIRST FEMALE EDITOR

It was 1994 that she was named editor of The Gleaner after serving for a while as news editor. I asked her if being the first woman to take on that job presented any unique challenges.

"The truth is, I really don't let other people's feelings about me impact me in any way," she said. "What I found was that some people who worked well with me before started being uncooperative. You know? Some people who I thought would have been supportive turned out not to be," she said. "But generally, I really don't even notice if people don't like me when we're at work. We're working. That's what we are together to do. It's not like we're friends, so as long as the work gets done, and gets done properly, well that's all that matters."

Gager is known as a straight-talker. And in a high-stress environment such as a newsroom, that can sometimes rub people the wrong way. "I'm blunt. Yes, I am. But it goes back to how I view work. None of it is personal. We have a job to do and I expect you to do it. That's all there is," she said. "People who I worked with back then see me now and say that we didn't get along then, but now they see what I was working to achieve. This surprises me because I didn't know that we didn't get along back then," she said, laughing. "I've always been a very confident person, so whatever people had to say about me never really got to me."

That confidence, she said, was cultivated in Trelawny, where she was born and raised. A farmer's daughter with a curious mind and a love for writing, Gager attended Westwood High School, and there leaned more than what was contained in her textbooks.

"I learned a lot about living with people. I was a boarder, so I got to understand how different personalities interact. I was the one who would comb the other girls' hair before school started. I was using so much of my time combing the girls' hair and not once did I think that I should be charging for the service or anything. It was just how things were, you know? This became my duty. They depended on me for that, and so I had to do it," said Gager.

She said that while attending school, she didn't plan on becoming a journalist. "But I always had a strong curiosity and imagination. Plus, I always loved writing. So in the end, it was a natural progression," she said.

Her career, which included a stint at the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation, created many long-lasting memories. She recalls covering former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, accompanying him on different trips overseas. She met Nelson Mandela on his visit to Jamaica, covered the Queen of England, as well as other day-to-day assignments that evolved into unforgettable experiences. It was clear from the way her eyes lit up as she reflected on these moments that she still has a love for journalism, even though she has not been actively involved in the profession for years.

"Oh, it's the best job in the world," she said. "The experiences you get are fantastic! It gives you access to so many things, and you are able to develop knowledge in a number of areas. I love that."

I asked her to tell me about her most treasured professional accomplishment. "I think I have a good eye for talent, so I always tried to push people who worked with me to achieve their potential. I would do everything I could to get my reporters working trips overseas just so they could get the experience and grow. I would try to lift up the workers who had the right attitude and push them to be great."

Gager is proud now that many of those person whom she tried to push years ago now hold senior positions not only at The Gleaner, but at other media houses in Jamaica. "It makes me very happy. I believe that sometimes people just need a little help, so if I, in any way, helped them get to where they are today, then I really am proud," she said.

NEWSPAPERS STILL RELEVANT

I asked Gager if she figured newspapers still have a relevant place in the age of social media. She didn't hesitate. "Of course!" she said. "I tell people that even though everyone can report news now via social media, it is only when that news is verified by an established media house with a solid reputation that it becomes credible."

"Newspapers absolutely have a place in society, but they will have to change their focus. I believe it's important to focus on communities. Go right in with the people and get them the help they need in their daily lives. If there is infrastructure that needs repair and the people can't get to their political representatives, newspapers need to get in there and publicise the matter for the people. In that way, they will cultivate a relationship with the people. That's an essential service that the papers can be focusing on now," she said.

Gager will this year receive the Order of Distinction (officer class) from the Jamaican Government for her contribution to journalism. It's an honour that could have come much earlier, however, the long-retired Gager is happy about the recognition. "It makes me feel good. We weren't doing it for awards, but it's always good to be recognised," she said.